Boxing: Time to start taking him seriously: Charles Nevin meets Lennox Lewis's manager Frank Maloney, who has cocked a snook at his critics in boxing by guiding his man to the world heavyweight championship

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The Independent Online
FRANK MALONEY, 39 and three quarters, 5ft 3in, arrives at his offices, bringing the television crew in with him. Frank has arrived, all right: Frank is the manager of the mighty Lennox Claudius Lewis, 27 and a quarter, 6ft 5in, Britain's first world heavyweight boxing champion in nearly a century; and Frank is enjoying himself.

So he should be. Maloney has taken a lot of stick, a lot of knocks since he persuaded Lewis, the Canadian 1988 Olympic super-heavyweight champion, sometime of the East End, to join him. In the boxing world, they laughed: there must be something wrong with Lewis, they said, if he was joining someone as small time as Maloney, who up until then had been an undistinguished amateur flyweight, an East End publican, a trainer with Frank Warren, a matchmaker with Mickey Duff and a mostly small-hall promoter with the interesting likes of Ambrose Mendy and Terry Marsh.

Frank, though, had beaten a lot of people to the punch. Frank had worked very hard, once he realised that Lewis was at the very least as British as our last world champion, Bob Fitzsimmons, who also left as a child, but never came back. To start with, Frank didn't even know what time of day it was in North America - literally - but he pestered and persuaded Lewis and his connections, and, eventually, won through. Lewis signed.

Still they laughed: Lewis was not really British; you had only to listen to his accent, to compare his quiet, intelligent unshowiness with the acceptable, all-singing, all- dancing Frank Bruno. Lewis made a pretty unshowy and unconvincing start to his professional career, too. Maloney was called an amateur and a joke. Duff, famously, said that Frank had done a Cecil B de Mille in reverse - had taken a star and turned him into an unknown.

But Frank remained unshakeable, publicly and privately: Lennox was going to be world champion. Frank took up Lewis's part with relish in the world heavyweight world of smokey machinations and multiple titles. They said he had got it wrong when Lewis took on the fearsome and much- avoided Razor Ruddock, but Lewis put Ruddock down.

Then came the increasingly frenetic quadrille with the new and excitable champ, Riddick Bowe, and his even more excitable manager, Rock Newman, which ended its first sequence last week with Bowe dropping one of his titles into a London hotel wastepaper basket and Lewis picking it up, leaving the prospect of much more hype and grudge and fury before the eventual, inevitable and vastly lucrative match to put the titles back together again.

A lot of people still think that Lewis could lose out in all this. Frank, in his office, smiles. He is smiling a lot these days. 'If I'm an amateur,' he says, 'God help the professionals. If they're so good, what have they been doing for the last 100 years?' They can knock and mock all they like, he says: he's got the Champ.

But, despite his struggles and satisfaction, it would be a mistake to overplay Maloney's role. Lennox is not just Frank's Champ. Lennox has American trainers, American advisers, American promoters, television contracts. Frank smoothes the way, but Lennox is very much his own Champ. He and his family, his elder brother, Dennis, and his mother, Violet, have the final say.

And then there are the backers. Once, Lennox was the first British fighter to be backed by a corporation, the Levitt Group, the financial services creation of the interesting Roger Levitt. Levitt was the crucial part of the deal which brought Lewis to Britain, but his company collapsed in December 1990, leaving Lennox in the hands of the receiver and Levitt facing pounds 20m fraud and related charges.

Now Lewis is backed by a rather more retiring figure, Panos Eliades, a north London accountant, a man better equipped for a more bracing age, specialising as he does in liquidation. There is also another major backer who doesn't even like his name mentioned. Boxing remains wondrously shadowy; as Wilde almost said, the unspeakable in pursuit of the unbeatable.

To be fair, Frank does not claim too much for himself: 'I know I work for Lennox Lewis. Lennox Lewis has appointed me as his manager to do the best for him. I believe that's what's wrong with boxing managers, they think they run boxers, that boxers are slaves . . . You look at Rock Newman and Riddick Bowe, it's like someone walking around with a bear, or Farmer Giles with his oversized chicken.'

Frank wouldn't say he feels every punch: 'That's crazy, you're not in there, are you?'; the experience, he says, is more like waiting for your child to be born, worrying that nothing's going to go wrong. Frank says he is one of a new breed, a partner with his fighter, not his father-figure, or master. Frank is big on the need for a boxers' union. The boxing manager as carer: Frank may well be out on his own here. Money is important, says Frank, but only as a measure of success. But boxing is a business, that's why he persuaded Lennox against accepting a mere dollars 3m to fight Bowe. Evander Holyfield, the man beaten by Bowe, made dollars 60 to dollars 70m in two years, and that was without Lennox's appeal and personality.

What Frank likes is 'the atmosphere of the hall on the big night', and the deal. If Frank hadn't left school at 15, he would have liked to have been a lawyer. Now he likes talking telephone numbers. Mostly, Frank exists on a couple of hours' sleep, 'junk food, sweets and the odd bottle of Mexican lager', and, it has to be said, it looks like it.

And, yes, he knows it could all disappear overnight, because that's what happened when the Levitt Group collapsed, taking with it his expense account, his Mercedes, his Jaguar, and all his new friends. Frank reckons he must now be number one on most people's dinner party lists, but he won't be accepting. He's not going up West; he is staying in the East and South, where he was born and brought up. There is an odd innocence about Frank.

Frank's father comes from Tipperary, but Frank's accent owes everything to his native Peckham and Millwall's terraces. His father has been in pubs and clubs, and Frank always seems to have had a pub; the present one is in Crayford, where he lives.

And, yes, 'obviously' he worries that Lennox might get too big for him, that there might be no place for him in the big league, 'But the one thing they can't take away is that I managed a world heavyweight champion. That's what will go down in the history books.' Meanwhile, he has a stable of seven as yet unshattering fighters, and he continues to promote, five cards this year.

His final ambition for Lennox is the old, impossible one: undefeated retirement, no comebacks. He thinks Lennox will go on to great things outside boxing; he thinks that at the moment Lennox might be more important for the country's morale than John Major, and he might be right. Still, the precedent of Bob Fitzsimmons is not encouraging: after beating Gentleman Jim Corbett in the 14th in 1897, he took himself into vaudeville for two years and lost his first defence to James J Jeffries. He fought on into his forties and died penniless in 1917.

Frank's final ambition for himself is not to be an old and bitter boxing manager and promoter. He might go into politics, he says, a favourite joke. He is taking up riding again, too - he trained as a jockey for a very short time at Epsom - and fancies a few races as an amateur. He also had a go at that other favoured occupation for Irish sons, the priesthood, but the fathers at the seminary school decided he might not be ready when he was discovered selling forbidden sweets during a retreat. Perhaps later, said the fathers, and, although Frank does not seem to have entirely ruled such a step out, it would not be wise to bank on it.

The telephone rings. It is Bonecrusher Smith's manager. The television camera is still rolling. Frank is polite but non-committal; Frank is enjoying himself.

(Photograph omitted)